Some of the names that usually come to mind when one is asked to identify notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camps are placed like Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, or Andersonville in Georgia. Few are likely to mention the little known prison located in Cahaba, Alabama. Yet, to the men who survived the rigors of life during their confinement in this Southern stockade, the sufferings and deprivations are comparable to those endured by Union soliders in other more well known Confederate prisons.
Officially known as "Castle Morgan" in honor of Confederate General and cavalry hero John Hunt Morgan, Cahaba Prison was created late in the Civil War, in 1863, at Cahaba, Alabama at the convergence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers. The town of Cahaba, located 50 miles southwest of the present day capital of Montgomery, was Alabama's first capital for seven years.
The inmates were confined in a large, brick warehouse used for cotton that was converted to function as a prison designed to hold a few hundred men. Smaller than a football field (64 yds. x 38 yds.), the entire compound was enclosed with a wooden stockade which was situated about 12 or 15 feet from the side walls of the warehouse. The northern portion of the prison grounds was portioned off for cooking purposes exclusively, thereby depriving the prisoners of precious living space of about 1/3 of the total enclosure.
Cahaba Prison became the principal unofficial depositary of Union cavalrymen unfortunate enough to be caputred subsequent to the camp's creation. Conditions at first were no better or worse than other Confederate prisons. In July, 1864, Cahaba had a prisoner population of only about 300 men, about half of whom were taken during Union General Sturgis's aborted attempt to capture that "wizard in the sadde," General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who directly contributed to the camp's burgeoning numbers in the fall of 1864,.
Following orders of President Davis, General Forrest set out on September 16, 1864 to conduct a raid into northern Alabama and central Tennessee with the intention of destroying the railroads from Nashville and Chattanooga which were transporting supplies to General Sherman's army while it drove to take Atlanta. During this campaign, Forrest and his men captured several thousand Union soldiers, including the luckless 3rd Tennessee cavalry regiment from the East Tennessee area. The largest number of Federal prisoners came from the capture of the fort at Athens, Alabama, which netted about 1,300 men, and the Sulphur Springs garrison, which added about 800 more.
Most of these Union priosners of war found themselves in the stockade in Cahaba, thereby swelling the inmate count to over 3,000 in a place originally designed for a few hundred. Naturally, the conditions in the camp became nearly intolerable due to inadequate shelter, food, and poor sanitary conditions, which made the winter of 1864-85 a most arduous time.
The Union prisoners endured these hardships with courage, but it was the flood during March of 1865 that broke the health of many. On March 1, 1865, the water runoff from the winter season caused the Alabama River to swell beyond its banks to the extend that it covered the entire prison floor. Of the 3,000 or so inmates, only about 600 found refuge from the chilly water by huddling together on rough banks called "roosts." The remaining 2,500 had no choice but to stand knee deep in the cold Alabama River. This deporable condition lasted for 48 continuous hours during which the men could not build any fires with which to secure warmth or to cook their meager daily ration of course cornmeal. On the second day the camp commander issued crackers for the starving prisoners which did little to alleviate their suffering. Finally on the third day, cordwood was brought to the Union men which allowed them to build small platforms above the water upon which the exposed troops could crowd together to remove themselves from the icy water.
The flooded condition of the Cahaba Prison continued for a total of 7 days, but the grounds of the prison remained soggy for another 3 days after the waters receded. During this nightmarish week, the men suffered from diarreha and dysentery from eating a steady diet of raw cornmeal. The bodily wastes of the men went into the flood waters within the compound and were effectively trapped by the wooden stockade enclosure, thereby creating a cesspool from which the men were forced to drink or use to cook their cornmeal.
Needless to say, the deprivation, exposure, and unsanitary conditions resulting from the March 1865 flood wreaked havoc on the health of the Union prisoners who were already in a weakened state. Fortunately, the exchange of prisoners of war was reinstated shortly thereafter, which relieved the men of the horrors of the camp but which, nevertheless, could not forestall the decline in health of approximately 1/3 of the inmates who later succumbed in Federal recovery camps.
One survivor of Cahaba Prison, Jesse Hawes, who also survived the Sultana explosion, makes a strong argument in his book, Cahaba: A Story of Captive Boys in Blue, published in 1888 (from which most of the pertinent facts of this article are taken) that the inmates at Cahaba endured greater hardships in terms of limited space and exposure to the elements (1865 flood) than the more famous Confederate camps of Andersonville and Libby. However, the author offers theories to explain the lack of knowledge about and attention to Cahaba: It was established late in the war, which limited the time necessary to create a reputation. Moreover, no raids were ever conducted by Federal forces to free the inmates, which woud have created a certain amount of notoriety. Finally and most significantly, most of the parolees from Cahaba did not live to tell their story since the majority of them had the ill fortune to make the trip home from Vicksburg aboard a steamer named the Sultana.
This article was first published in spring 1991 in the The Sultana Remembered newsletter written and published by Pam Newhouse. The author of the article is the founder of the Sultana Association of Descendants and Friends, Norman Shaw.